Big East is making its case

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

Two teams are ranked in the top 25, yet neither is in first place. Only one team is undefeated in league play, but six have at least five overall victories. One win or loss could change the standings dramatically.

The Big East Conference race is a guessing game whose frontrunner seems to switch on a weekly basis and whose picture is no clearer on Halloween than it was on Labor Day. That, depending on your perspective, either makes it the worst of the six BCS conferences or the most exciting.

"I think everybody is going to feel the same way, that any week anybody can beat anybody," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said after his Scarlet Knights (3-5, 1-2) beat Pitt, 54-34. "That makes for some good viewing, I think."

At worst, it promises to make for an interesting finish.

No. 23 South Florida (6-3, 1-3), No. 25 Connecticut (6-2, 2-1) and Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1) are bowl-eligible, but West Virginia (5-2, 2-0) is the lone team with a perfect conference record. Yet no team has finished undefeated in league play since the Big East restructured in 2005 by adding Cincinnati, Louisville and USF after Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech left for the Atlantic Coast.

One point no one will argue is that parity is prevailing.

How else to explain Pitt (5-2, 2-1) winning at USF Oct. 2 and losing at home to Rutgers three weeks later?

The Panthers, who visit Notre Dame in a non-conference game on Saturday, join West Virginia and Connecticut as the three Big East programs who control their own fate this season. The Panthers play host to West Virginia on Nov. 28, then visit UConn on Dec. 6.

"We've been saying all along that it's a very even conference, with all the teams involved," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The conference championship probably won't be decided until the last weekend."

A lot can happen between now and Championship Saturday, when West Virginia plays host to USF. One possibility is that no Big East team will crack the top 10 again, which prompted the question of whether the conference champion deserves a BCS bowl berth under such a scenario.

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart was downright indignant in his response.

"Absolutely," Stewart said. "Look at our past track record. I'd look at the last few years in bowls with the Big East. One year (2006), we (as a conference) were 5-0, the next year ('07), we were 3-2. Throw that Sugar Bowl win we had against Georgia (in January '05), and that's 9-2 in the last 11 bowl games we played. You're darn right we deserve a BCS bid.

"That's just strong conference play. We knock each other off. Other conferences are going to have two or three losses. This is the black-and-blue league. We bruise each other every single week. It's a battering, banging and clanging. It's just a rough, rough league."

The Big East this season has a collective 25-12 record in non-conference games, counting among its victories opponents from the ACC (Virginia and North Carolina State), the Big 12 (Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor), the Big Ten (Iowa) and the Southeastern (Auburn), as well as independent Navy.

What has hurt the Big East's reputation are the lopsided losses to the likes of North Carolina by Connecticut (26 points) and Rutgers (32 points), Oklahoma by Cincinnati (26 points), Penn State by Syracuse (42 points) and Kentucky by Louisville (25 points).

The conference also was criticized for defeats such as Bowling Green's season-opening stunner at Pitt and Colorado's overtime victory against West Virginia on an ESPN Thursday night game. Not to mention the continued embarrassment of Syracuse (1-6, 0-3), which lost to Akron by 14 at home.

Yet Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said the talk of the Cardinals' meeting room this week was how similar the Atlantic Coast and Big East are this season. Neither conference has an undefeated team. The ACC has four teams with six wins and three with five.

"It's amazing," Kragthorpe said. "It's a championship game every week."

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